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High resolution satellite imagery assists hunt for infectious 'kissing bugs'

Their targets are blood-sucking reduviid insects, generally known as 'kissing bugs' because they emerge from their hiding places each night to bite human skin where it is thinnest around the mouth and eyes.

Growing up to five centimetres long, the kissing bugs are harmless by themselves, but carry a microscopic protozoan parasite that causes the wasting and eventually lethal Chagas disease. Secondary sources of infection can include ingesting contaminated food, mother to child transmission like during breast feeding and tainted blood transfusions.

Infection by this Trypanosoma cruzi parasite may cause short-term symptoms including fever, tiredness and brain swelling. However it is the longer-term symptoms that are most serious: ten to 15 years after initial infection the heart enlarges and grows weaker; internal organs are also affected. Sufferers must endure chronic tiredness and a higher chance of an early death often from heart failure.

Chagas disease affects at least 16 million people across Central and South America, of which World Health Organisation figures show 21 000 die every year. There is no vaccine, and response to treatment decreases with age. When first discovered in 1909, Chagas was a predominantly rural affliction, but urbanisation has brought it into towns and cities.

The majority of the half a million inhabitants of Matagalpa are poor - made poorer still by the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Chagas is a disease of poverty.

The parasite-carrying insects thrive in poor housing conditions, such as trodden earth floors, adobe walls and thatched roofs. Hundreds of kissing bugs can hide in cracks and cavities by day, then emerge to climb walls, jump and glide to land on exposed flesh.

Infected children respond best to treatment, but for medical interventions to be effective, the bugs have to be eradicated to avoid rapid patient re-infection. As part of a wider anti-Chagas campaign in
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Contact: Mariangela D'Acunto
mariangela.d'acunto@esa.int
39-069-418-0856
European Space Agency
28-Sep-2004


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